Corporate biopic Flamin' Hot delivers a questionably true story in familiar packaging

click to enlarge Corporate biopic Flamin' Hot delivers a questionably true story in familiar packaging
Flamin' Hot lacks the spice.

Richard Montañez almost certainly did not invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos. That fabrication is at the core of Eva Longoria's feel-good biopic about Montañez, Flamin' Hot, and its fundamental insincerity is reflective of the movie's tone, with plenty of platitudes about believing in yourself, working hard, and never giving up. As a fictional narrative, Flamin' Hot is a lot like its junk-food subject: easy to consume but ultimately empty, with little lasting satisfaction. As a supposedly inspirational true story, it's pure hokum.

Montañez's claim to be the mastermind behind Flamin' Hot Cheetos was debunked in an extensive Los Angeles Times investigation in 2021, although he still peddles his version of the story in books and speaking engagements, and now in this movie. It's especially disappointing that he's become such an apparent huckster, because the true details of Montañez's life are still pretty remarkable.

As the movie depicts, he grew up in a rural community of migrant laborers in California, drifted into criminal activity, and spent time in prison, all before landing a job as a janitor at the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, California, in 1976. By the time he retired from Frito-Lay in 2019, he had risen to an executive position, spearheading the company's marketing efforts to the Latino community.

Montañez adds to that story of outstanding achievement by crediting himself with the invention of the spicy flavor that became a snack-food sensation. The screenplay by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, based on Montañez's own memoir, is relentlessly on-message about the Mexican-American identity that means so much to Richard (Jesse Garcia) and his family. As Richard recounts in his incessant, cloying narration, Flamin' Hot Cheetos were not just a new flavor variation for Frito-Lay; they were a distillation of their creator's own upbringing and heritage, sourced from the traditional foods beloved by his friends and family and perfected in his own kitchen.

The movie's version of Richard is a likable guy, with a positive attitude even in the face of poverty and discrimination. As soon as he starts working at Frito-Lay, he befriends veteran machinist Clarence C. Baker (Dennis Haysbert) and dedicates himself to learning everything he can about the factory's operations. He's a true company man, and when CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) puts out a video message to employees soliciting feedback, Richard is the only one at his workplace who pays attention. He calls Enrico's office directly to pitch his idea for a new product that will appeal to the underserved Latino demographic.

Regardless of which elements are true, Flamin' Hot is always broad and predictable, with the obvious setbacks and obstacles as Richard attempts to improve his station in life and provide for his family, always supported by his upbeat wife Judy (Annie Gonzalez). As a director, Longoria has mostly worked in TV, and Flamin' Hot often plays like a breezy sitcom, resolving every conflict within a scene or two in order to get to a moment of crowd-pleasing humor or sentiment. The one creative flourish Longoria brings to the storytelling — having Richard narrate his imagined version of corporate board meetings, with other actors miming along to his words — is remarkably similar to a fan-favorite bit from Marvel's Ant-Man movies.

Shamelessly borrowing from the biggest franchise in Hollywood fits with Flamin' Hot's overall sense of phony goodwill, though. It's presented as a celebration of Mexican-American ingenuity, but it really represents a different kind of American dream: Using exaggeration and manipulation to garner admiration and wealth, while projecting a wholesome image of integrity and perspicacity. Now that's a subject worth making a movie about. ♦

Rated PG-13
Directed by Eva Longoria
Starring Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert
Streaming on Hulu and Disney+

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